How to Create Fulfilling Relationships After Experiences of Abuse

Photo Credit: Something old, something new by Rachel Samanyi via Flickr CC BY 2.0

We are pleased to share this article by our friend and colleague, Niyati Evers, MAPW, and diplomate in Process Work. Niyati is a sex-positive therapist with Alchemy of Eros, a Portland, Oregon-based professional counseling services organization that seeks to create a welcoming, non-judgmental space where people can explore issues around relationships, intimacy, power, passion, desire, sexuality, life transitions, and personal transformation.

This article has been edited and condensed from its original version.

Many people experience abuse and trauma. Abuse may occur in adult life, during childhood, or through experiences of war and other traumatic events, and can take many forms, from physical and sexual abuse to emotional and psychological forms of abuse. If you are currently in an abusive relationship, experiencing recent trauma, or need immediate help, click here for a list of resources.

What Constitutes Abuse?

Process-oriented Psychology defines abuse as a situation where one person consciously or unconsciously misuses their power over another person, and where there is a power differential that makes it impossible, dangerous, or extremely risky for the person who is being abused to defend themselves.

Having lived through an abusive relationship myself, I know firsthand how hard it can be to come to terms with these experiences and the scars they leave behind. It can be challenging to navigate those inner scars and painful memories when trying to create new and fulfilling relationships.

Past experiences of abuse often reverberate in the present, and triggers may show up in a person’s bodily sensations.

Past trauma may manifest through visceral, physical responses that don’t seem to make sense or correspond to the current situation. The circumstances that cause these responses are sometimes called triggers. My personal triggers often involve some kind of sudden or unexpected noise. One of my triggers, for example, is a loud knock on the door—it can send my heart racing as I catch my breath in my throat.

It’s difficult to get rid of these triggers. They seem to get embedded in memory during a time in your life when you needed to be on high alert because your physical, emotional, or mental survival was at stake. Triggers function like an internal warning system, letting you know that there’s danger ahead.

In abusive situations, a watchful, high-alert mindset often becomes second nature. Having lived with a partner who could suddenly change from charming, gregarious, and playful into a vicious and violent monster, I learned how to watch for and read subtle signals that indicated imminent changes in his state of mind. This was my way of protecting myself from the abuse that would inevitably follow his mood shifts.

Sadly, as many of us know and have experienced, abusive behavior frequently repeats itself. My previous partner was a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. After living through war and violence, he too was deeply traumatized.

Knowing that it’s not easy to change our triggers, and that these negative feelings do not readily disappear, how do we navigate life after trauma without repeating cycles of abuse? How can we transform our experiences in ways that allow us to have healthy and happy relationships?

 

  1. Know Your Triggers

Triggers differ from person to person, depending on the kind of abuse each person experienced. Your trigger may be a sudden, loud sound; or the feeling of being approached too close, too fast; or the way someone touches you, or where they touch you. Your triggers are specific to you and your history.

Knowing what triggers “set you off” is helpful in many ways: This knowledge can help you put your own reaction in perspective and differentiate it from what’s actually happening in the moment.

By letting a partner know what your triggers are, you can help them understand where your responses are coming from. This can go a long way towards preventing painful conflicts between you and for your partner(s).

  1. Get to Know Your Triggered State

Knowing how you tend to behave, feel, and react when you are triggered can deepen your understanding of yourself and your relationships. It allows you to have constructive and supportive conversations with your partner(s) about what’s going on and what each of you needs, rather than responding from a reactive, defensive standpoint.

One of the ways in which I behave when I am triggered is that my “lawyer mind” tends to take over. I withdraw emotionally and I question my partner’s behavior from a place of suspicion. My current partner has told me that, when this happens, he feels like he is on the “witness stand,” that he’s being interrogated. Recognition of this pattern gave me the awareness to explore the feeling behind my reactions.

  1. Learn to Set Boundaries in Direct and Constructive Ways

If you have lived through an abusive situation, you may find it overwhelmingly difficult to connect with personal power after trauma. Your relationship with power may be colored by very negative and destructive experiences. You may feel a great deal of fear when using your body or voice in a way that could affect another person.

One of the major challenges for people who have survived abuse lies in their relationship with power. Abuse often undermines a sense of personal power.  If you cannot connect to your own power, you may inadvertently bury your aggression and rage, causing these feelings to emerge in passive, indirect, harmful ways in your relationships, such as

  • ignoring a partner
  • withdrawing emotionally
  • blaming or guilting a partner unfairly

In its most essential nature, power is neutral. It is energy—energy you can use in positive or in negative ways. The good news is that positive power builds its own momentum: the more positive experiences you have of using your power in your relationships in constructive and direct ways, the safer you’ll feel to keep connecting to and expressing your power.

  1. Understand Your Inner Abuser

People who have experienced abuse may repeat the cycle inwardly, against themselves. Your inner abuser may shame and blame you for what happened, using any kind of “lesson from the past” as a way to criticize you: “See, if you had only listened to yourself better or stood up for yourself more. You brought it on yourself by not being stronger and speaking up.” While it seems like the “inner abuser” wants you to protect yourself better, this voice perpetuates the abuse by blaming you while ignoring the circumstances and power differentials that surrounded the abuse.

The inner abuser also doesn’t allow you to experience the real feelings and real losses that follow abuse. In our culture, there is a tendency to view victimhood negatively—and while each of us can get stuck in feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, that doesn’t negate the facts of abuse. In an abusive situation, you were the victim. To heal from trauma, you need to make space for feelings of loss, grief, fear, and rage—feelings you couldn’t feel at the time because, in situations of abuse, it is often unsafe to show any feelings at all.

  1. Let Go of Impossible Expectations

Letting your partner know about your triggers does not mean that your partner will never trigger you. To expect that of anyone is not only unfair to the other person—it also creates a dynamic of over-cautiousness where the other person may feel like they have to “walk on eggshells” around you.

Yes, you have every right to expect that your partner(s) treat you with respect. At the same time, it is important not to hold your partner responsible for your triggers. Your triggers are part of your history. It’s critical to learn how to distinguish between when abuse is happening or repeating itself (and your reaction is appropriate to the actual situation); and when your reaction emerges in response to a trigger and from your sense of your own history.

At the same time, communicating about your triggers will help your partner understand why you may have seemingly “disproportionate” reactions. Meta-communication, or naming what you are noticing or experiencing in the moment,  is one helpful tactic. Meta-communicating with your partner may sound like this: “I’m triggered—I need space to process this. I will come back into the relationship later, but right now I need to come back into my own skin first.”

The Power of Sensitivity

Knowing you have lived through an experience of abuse doesn’t turn you into “damaged goods” or make you a worse partner. On the contrary: the sensitivity and awareness that people who live through abuse develop by necessity can be a huge asset in any relationship. If you have experienced abuse, you will pick up on information and see signals others may overlook. Your experience often magnifies your ability to empathize with others’ feelings.

Know that having lived through the abuse of power can potentially make you an expert and teacher in how to use power in ways that heal rather than hurt, nurture instead of demean, and deepen instead of destroy relationships.

Read Niyati’s full article, or listen to the podcast, on the Alchemy of Eros blog.

To read more LifeWorks blogs about Trauma, use the search box to the right, under Articles by Topic.